Given Inside Man's bullpen (director Spike Lee, stars Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster), moment in political history, and advertising, you could be forgiven for anticipating some kind of socially relevant, perhaps even politically volatile dramatic smash-up something with teeth, ambition, a functioning cerebrum, and a lusty relationship with reality. But those hopes may belong in a museum case by now. Lee, for one, is long beyond his days as a civic provocateur and voice for the radical social whorl. Like John Singleton, he may have found his legs as a pulp manufacturer whose least arguable claim to fame is that he can do fast, funny, attitudinal genre films better than Tony Scott. Washington and Foster, for their parts, are merely dukes in a sick kingdom, taking what roles they're offered for people their age (and sex) just to keep their careers afloat in the public brainpan.
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Which is to say that Inside Man is irrelevant, another semi-high-tech megaheist movie, the rhythms and tropes of which we are all as familiar with as we are with the wallpaper facing our toilets. Heist films, based on surprise and facile cleverness, have an evolutionary trajectory, and the stories have gotten more convoluted and outlandish simply because the police characters (here, Washington and right-hand stooge Chiwetel Ejiofor) have seen all of the movies we have, and so the puzzle they face must be newly arcane. ("C'mon, you've seen Dog Day Afternoon," Washington chides Clive Owen's drippingly cool bank robber at one point. "Nobody gets the airplane!") All of the screenplays' efforts are channeled into constructing a ridiculous plot that is almost by definition unconvincing. In the 1970s, heist scenarios like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Anderson Tapes had their feet on the ground, but today they have as much to do with real life and real crime as a Toy Story sequel. Certainly, modern screenwriters like first-timer Russell Gewirtz put a good deal more thought into the procedure of theft than actual bank robbers do.
To wit: Owen and his crew of very calm mercenaries barge into a lower Manhattan bank (the location is chosen deliberately for its 9/11 echoes, which Lee cannot apparently resist and which have no bearing whatsoever on the story), hold 40-odd people hostage, and begin a miniconstruction project inside that Gewirtz's screenplay doesn't reveal to us until the end. Days pass, with Washington's smirky, scandal-besmirched, low-grade detective deciding to wait out the bad guys. There's a good deal of waiting. We know, because we've seen the films, that Owen's preternatural serenity and glib claims of being the smartest guy in town indicate that he has a fiendishly brilliant master plan that has nothing to do with the demands he makes (the escape plane, etc.). We also know that Washington will eventually catch on, that surveillance equipment can be monkeyed with, and that the NYPD's traditional methods won't work. (Except, one cannot help but note, wouldn't a quick deployment of police dogs have scotched Owen's, and Gewirtz's, genius plan?)
Saying more would flatten the film's already disheartening fizzle, but roping in Foster as a master-of-the-universe problem-solver engaged by the bank's cagey billionaire CEO (Christopher Plummer) for all of five scenes just tamps things down further. The tantalizing possibility for real chaos is churned up by the movie's periodic flash-forwards, which make it clear that by the end of the siege, nobody could tell who were the hostages and who were the thieves. But Lee is playing the genre like a board game, and his film is a sniggering riff, filled with hyperbolic New Yawk stereotypes, tit jokes, puns, scattershot commentary on racial profiling, and smug banter. As bogus in its way as Richard Donner's 16 Blocks, Inside Man has an even more irritating disrespect for the verities of police work and for the emotional life of urban Americans.
There are a few rousing achievements on the table, in particular a comical police debate instigated by a faux riddle tossed by Owen, about trains, U.S. currency, and Grand Central Station as well as a fast joke involving a Sikh hostage who, outraged by profiling, acknowledges that yes, he can easily hail a cab in Mid-Eastern-cabbie-saturated New York. But heist films are hardly what they used to be. For decades, they were a vehicle for postwar desperation and fatalism, and today the genre has an empty tank of frisson to offer without film noir's acknowledgment of doom. The difference between, say, Stanley Kubrick's 1956 masterpiece The Killing and contemporary daydreams like Inside Man is the difference between a luckless hell on earth and a dull weekend in the Poconos.